Writing to a Prisoner

photoI started writing to a prisoner on death row a few months ago. One of my old co-workers did it, and I’ve been thinking about it for a while. When I signed up for the site, it said it would take a year to match me up with a pen pal–but I got my first letter only two months later.

It arrived in the mail at my parents house while I was away to Ramapo. My dad found it and texted me–joking around that he was my boyfriend and I should invite him to my grandmother’s for Thanksgiving dinner. Even though he was making jokes, after he said he wanted to do it and took my side when my mom voiced her very strong opinions against it.

When I finally went home to get the letter–I panicked a little bit. Garry*, my pen pal, is on death row at San Quentin. SAN QUENTIN? A few weeks earlier I hadn’t even heard of the place, but then Joyce Carol Oates came to read at our school, and one of her pieces was inspired by her time teaching there. She gave a really rough description of the maximum security prison, so I understood it was a big deal. That’s when it finally hit me, I guess–this guy killed someone, maybe more than one person. Why else would he be on death row? Why wasn’t I scared to find out?

In addition to Garry’s introduction letter, the organization sent me a generic welcome letter with rules, guidelines, suggestions, etc. They warned me that the prisoners may ask for money, which worried me more than it should have. I wanted to believe this person was just looking for friendship and not trying to get anything out of me. Of course in the two letters I’ve since received from Gary, he had not once asked me for anything besides companionship and a photo so he knew who he was talking to.

In his first letter, he included a picture of himself for me. The letter was just about how he’s been searching for a pen pal–he was born in Cali in 1960. That was unexpected. He’s three years older than my dad–he could have kids my age, older. Apart from that he seemed nice enough–but how nice can a man on death row really be, right?

So I wrote my first letter (ever). I introduced myself back, tried asking harmless questions—what did he do for fun? What’d he do for his birthday/Thanksgiving/any plans for Christmas? I wanted to ask how many people he killed, but I didn’t want to scare him away–imagine that, I was worried I’d scare away a murderer–a 22 year old college student from New Jersey who cried when she hit and killed a squirrel. I cried for 20 minutes on the side of the road and I missed my hair appointment. They made me reschedule but I could never go back. I should have asked after my first letter. I had intended to but who knows why I didn’t.

My second letter from Garry came accompanied with a cute little Christmas card. It’s red and has a photo of a rocking horse on the front. The card’s from Hallmark. How did a death row inmate get his hands on a Hallmark Christmas card? There are so many things I want to ask him at this point, but I’m too afraid just yet. The rocking horse on the cover of the card is childish. It made me wonder if he thought of me as a child—or if he killed children.

In the card he referred to the “greatest beauty in life” that can be found in simple things—he was referring to being able to wish me a lovely holiday. What a profound thing to say, right? I was like, damn, this guy’s deep, and sweet—which is weird when I finally snap out of it and remember he’s a killer.

Not only did I get a truly sweet card, I got a two page letter to go with it. He seems religious, which I could have assumed because it’s a popular stereotype that prisoners “find god” in jail. But I’m not religious so I was a little off-put by his wishes that his letter found me “in god’s good care” because he’s doing pretty well himself.

He answered all my questions about his birthday and everything. He said he ate pie, ice cream, and chocolate milk. I felt like he was a child. I kept obsessing over wondering how young he was when he was locked up—was he a kid? 17? 18? I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I ended up asking him in my second letter to him, “how long have you been in prison?” seems fair enough, I thought. I prefaced it with the obligatory “if you feel uncomfortable, please ignore this question,” so who knows how much he’s willing to share?

Then he asked me to send a picture of myself—that seemed fair so I found one from a few years ago to include—it wasn’t easy to find a non-digital photo of myself. He told me he’d draw me a picture, which was nice—I do love art and drawings. I told him to surprise me.

I’m still contemplating whether or not it’s appropriate to ask him why he’s on death row. And if I did, and he told me, would I even be able to believe him? Maybe he’s a sociopath—he’d have to be in order to commit murder—but, then again, he could have been innocent and falsely accused? I watch a lot of TV (Prison Break).

Towards the end of his letter I got a little confused. He alluded that he wanted to be good friends rather than friends, which I didn’t understand, really. Then he asked “if you happen to find a person in your life let me know.” I wonder what he meant by that? So in my response I told him I already had someone in my life for three and a half years. There’s no reason to be dishonest with a man I’m sure I’ll never meet. He asked three times in the letter for a photo—it got a little weird—I’m on the edge of uncomfortable. But I shouldn’t be—he’s locked up. What’s he gunna do? But, then again, he’s locked up on death row, what has he done?

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